Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story (film review)

Critic’s rating: ★★★
(94 minutes; PG-13)

It’s impossible for me to approach a documentary about Jazz Fest aka the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, with anything like the cool detachment required to give a fair shake to any given piece of film art.

Why? Because I’ve attended the fest, one of the best and most eclectic music gatherings in the world, umpteen times since the late ’80s, including a 5-year stretch of consecutive visits starting in 2006, about 8 months after Hurricane Katrina crippled and remade New Orleans, and ending in 2010. That year, I was treated to an afternoon of unforgettable, rootsy rock, blues and Americana music when the Allman Brothers Band and Levon Helm’s group, with loads of special guests, played back to back on the same stage.

It really did feel like a bit of musical paradise on earth when I experienced world-class performances, by hometown heroes and global superstars alike, at one of the fest’s dozen venues — whether on the giant stages at either end of the sprawling Fair Grounds Race Track, the jazz, blues, or gospel tents, or the other locations. The list of my favorite shows over the decades is long, but here’s the short version: Stevie Wonder, the World Saxophone Quartet with African drummers, James Brown, Galactic, Paul Simon, Mose Allison, Randy NewmanElvis Costello with Allen Toussaint, Sharon Jones, McCoy Tyner, Astral Project, Terence Blanchard, the Meters, the Neville Brothers, Los Hombres Calientes, Randy Weston, various Marsalis family members.

At its best, Jazz Fest, the nickname for an event that has never strictly focused on jazz, has been enormously influential on my musical tastes as a listener and as a player. During the early days of my long-running band Acme Jazz Garage, we frequently included Meters songs in our sets. And one of my original tunes, “Mr. G.P.,” a Meters salute referencing the band’s bassist George Porter Jr. is on our 2016 debut CD.

So, in short, I’ve come to dearly love Jazz Fest, and the New Orleans musical culture in which the event is enmeshed. Since at least my mid-’20s, I’ve been drawn to the artistic/spiritual vibe of a place that’s unlike anywhere else in America. One year, I attended all 10 days of the fest; at one point, a buddy and I considered moving to the city. I’ve become something of an evangelist for the fest, writing about it for the Tampa Tribune (where I was the pop music critic from 1988 to 1996), the Tampa Bay TimesBillboardVariety, and jazz magazines. I’ve participated in online and in-person gatherings by the Threadheads, a group of Jazz Fest supporters.

On some occasions, though, I’ve been extremely annoyed by how ginormous the fest has become, in terms of the exploding attendance. Every year, the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May, several hundred thousand music aficionados and partiers now swamp the event. I’ll admit that the intense crowding and heat, and some of the logistical hassles of getting to the Fair Grounds and back, bug me more now than when I was 27.

“Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story,” the first — I think — full-length documentary/concert film on the subject, focuses on the 50th fest in 2019. The nickel review: It isn’t bad, a fun introduction to the fest for those who’ve never attended, even if it’s less than wholly satisfying for longtimers. The movie does a pretty nice job of placing viewers into the midst of the fest, and helps demonstrate why it’s all such an amazing experience for music lovers.

The film does check most of the right boxes regarding the origins of the affair, which was started in 1970 by jazz festival innovator George Wein — Duke Ellington was the only non-Louisiana act at the debut fest, which reportedly attracted about 300 attendees. Wein, mastermind of the Newport Jazz Festival, Newport Folk Festival, Playboy Jazz Festival, Kool and JVC jazz festivals, and many other major music fests, was succeeded by local music aficionado and promoter Quint Davis, who transformed the fest into one of the largest events of its kind in the world. For better and (maybe) worse, its current incarnation is an affair with a budget of $20 million-plus that is said by organizers to have a regional economic impact of $300 million. Making the thing go depends on major corporate funding — the fest is no longer the grass-roots event of its first couple decades or so.

“Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” offers some great footage from the early years, and devotes at least a little time to the various musical influences — regional Louisiana, gospel, soul, trad jazz, the roots of the music in Congo Square — that have come into play in the fest’s programming. “Jazz Fest” also touches on the impact of Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras Indians traditions, second-line parade rhythms, New Orleans cuisine, and Katrina. And it rightly takes a look at one of the fest’s star offstage attractions — the tangy, savory food offered by about 60 Louisiana-based food vendors offering such treats as jambalaya, red beans and rice, gumbo, and a bazillion crawfish dishes.

There’s a moving sequence on the 2006 fest, with clips of Bruce Springsteen and Co. turning in an emotional “My City of Ruins,” and some talk about what the gathering meant to the sagging spirit and economy of the post-disaster city.

There’s a moving sequence on the 2006 fest, with clips of Bruce Springsteen and Co. turning in an emotional “My City of Rains,” and some talk about what the gathering meant to the sagging spirit and economy of the post-disaster city.

But (and this is a BIG, if somewhat expected, but) screen time unfortunately is dominated by non-New Orleans Big Name Acts, the kind that you could see play any venue in America. Representing the 50th fest are long clips of Rev. Al Green (a highlight), PitbullKaty Perry, and Earth, Wind and Fire, among other name entertainers. Sorry to report that Jimmy Buffett‘s version of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is about as bland and forgettable as you might imagine (surprise: Buffett, of course, is an exec producer, along with Quint Davis).

Oddly, and inexplicably, the film doesn’t offer recent or vintage extended performance clips of the Neville Brothers, the Meters, Dr. John, Galactic, Henry Butler, Astral Project, Kermit Ruffins, the Iguanas, the Radiators, the subdudes or many other of the city’s notable musicians. It’s really a wasted opportunity in that respect, a pretty glaring oversight.

Adding insult to injury, there are simply too many interviews with folks who have little or no connection to New Orleans or Louisiana music. No need to list those names. But those moments contribute to the feeling that the entire movie was intended to be a glorified advertisement for the fest, designed simply to bump up ticket sales rather than meant to capture the heart and the soul of the thing.

As a jazz fan, I’ll add that I really do appreciate the focus on interviews with the late, great Ellis Marsalis — in many respects, a forefather of the city’s modern jazz scene — and his more famous sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason, and the footage of their performance at the Jazz Tent during the 2019 fest. THAT’s the kind of performance that makes Jazz Fest distinctive — it was the first time in maybe decades that all five had played together. You couldn’t see that anywhere else. And now, with Ellis’s passing, it’ll never happen again.

And kudos to the producers for including performance clips of such New Orleans stalwarts as soul queen Irma Thomas, the Ben Jaffe-led Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and slide guitarist Sonny Landreth.

Despite my misgivings, recent and veteran Festgoers alike will find a lot to enjoy about the film — it’s a convenient way to share our love for Jazz Fest with those who’ve yet to experience one of the most amazing, most eclectic musical and cultural events in the United States. For maximum audiovisual pleasure, go see it on a big screen with loud speakers.

Movies are rated from 0 to 5 stars.
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